If the House passes the Boehner plan today, Senate Democrats will be in a bind. They cannot pass their own plan, offered by Senator Reid, thanks to a GOP filibuster—which means the Boehner bill will be the only live option for avoiding default. Senate Democrats will likely respond by trying to put forward a third option—a compromise between the Boehner and Reid plans. But considering the difficulty Boehner has had in convincing House conservatives to vote for his plan, he can credibly say that passing a watered down version of his plan in the House would be nearly impossible. Boehner’s message to Democrats, if his plan passes today, is simple: They can either pass his plan or let the country default. The choice is theirs. As Boehner told the GOP caucus, if his bill passes and the August 2 deadline approaches without a solution, Senate Democrats “will fold like a cheap suit.” So will President Obama.
But what happens if the House were to defeat the Boehner plan? With Boehner’s bill dead, the Senate would be back in the driver’s seat. Reid will then come up with some compromise version of his and Boehner’s plans that can win enough Republicans over to pass the Senate, which will then become the only viable legislation to prevent default. Instead of the Democrats capitulating, it will be a small number of Republicans in the Senate who “fold like a cheap suit.” The GOP filibuster will collapse, and Democrats will pass their watered down bill in the Senate with a handful of Republican votes. Then House Republicans will be in the very bind in which they intended to put Senate Democrats. They will have to decide: Do we allow the government to default, or pass the Senate bill?
In either case, they lose. If House Republicans pass the Senate bill, it will be a devastating political defeat for the GOP. The debt limit will be raised with little more than phantom spending cuts. Obama and the Democrats will have prevailed. If House Republicans reject the Senate bill, it will also be a devastating defeat for the GOP. Obama and Democrats will be able to blame Republicans for the resulting chaos. The GOP will take ownership of the weak economy. Obama will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to lay every bit of bad economic news—every weak jobs report, every interest rate increase—at the GOP’s feet. And Obama’s re-election prospects will be dramatically strengthened going into 2012—positioning him for a second term where he can continue to thwart GOP efforts to rein in government and continue his efforts to socialize the country.
All this can be avoided if the House passes the Boehner plan today—and Boehner insists that the Senate pass it, and the president sign it. If he holds firm, they will. This will be a modest victory for Republicans, but a major defeat for Obama. And we can then have this debate all over again in four to six months—which keeps spending cuts on the political front burner, and helps set up the next election as a referendum on the way forward for reducing our debt. Conservatives can win such a referendum. If they do, they will get the reinforcements they need on Capitol Hill to pass “Cut, Cap, and Balance”—and a conservative president who will sign it into law. If the Boehner plan fails today, all that may be at risk.